06.25.08

Reaction On The Supreme Court Ruling In Exxon v. Baker

More than a decade ago, the Exxon Valdez was run aground by a drunk captain, leading to one of the worst – and preventable – environmental disasters to reach American shores.  A jury determined that Exxon Mobil knowingly and repeatedly allowed a relapsed alcoholic to operate a ship filled with oil through Prince William Sound.  That jury found Exxon to be liable for $5 billion for its actions.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals cut those damages in half.

For more than a decade, Exxon Mobil has appealed to the courts, stalling and fighting with an army of lawyers to insulate itself from having to pay for the injuries it caused when 11 million gallons of oil were dumped into Prince William Sound.  Today the Supreme Court has given Exxon Mobil Company a $2 billion windfall by reading into the Constitution a protection for corporations that simply does not exist.  This is activism, pure and simple. 

In his powerful dissent, Justice Stevens concludes “that Congress, rather than this Court, should make the empirical judgments” contained in the majority opinion, which further slashed the jury award by $2 billion.  Justice Stevens is correct when he observes that by not limiting the remedy of punitive damages for such blatant corporate misconduct, Congress has made that judgment on remedies.  If Congress had wanted to cap punitive damages for disasters which impact thousands of Americans who depend on natural resources for their livelihood it could have, but it did not. 

The justices who dissented from the Supreme Court’s ruling today demonstrated what some have called “judicial modesty” – an understanding of their role in our system of government.  Justice Stevens calls it “judicial restraint.”  Whatever the label, the justices in the majority’s decision have discarded that approach. 

This ruling is another in a line of cases where this Supreme Court has misconstrued congressional intent to benefit large corporations.  This Supreme Court decision, like those in Ledbetter and inRiegel, has real world consequences.  These decisions leave ordinary Americans without a remedy for their serious injuries and in turn, offer a shield to big corporations.  Two weeks ago, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing to examine this very issue but objections from Senate Republicans cut short our examination.  We may need to hold yet another hearing to look at this harmful trend.  I only hope this time the Republican minority in the Senate will not prevent the victims of such cases from testifying in public. 

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